Review: Blindpassasjer

Back in the 70s, science fiction and fantasy finally got a homegrown foothold in Norway, largely thanks to the books and stories by the duo Bing & Bringsværd, who managed to negotiate fables and fantastic literature up to accepted levels by approaching it from academic and social commentary angles. It was only a matter of time before Norway would get it’s first sci-fi visual drama.

NRK, Norway’s licence funded government broadcaster and in 1978 the only domestic TV channel, made Blindpassasjer (which means “stowaway”, though the series do not have an official English title) a 3-part miniseries in 1978, and it received cult status but remained unreleased for 29 years and also have not been shown on Norwegian TV after initial broadcast. In 2007 the original series, and not the edited version, was been made available by NRK’s own DVD label. This is Norwegian television history, folks!

We are on board the spaceship Marco Polo, which is making its way back to the homebase Nexus. The five crew members have been cryosleeping (“controlled hibernation” is the term used in the film) but when they wake up they discover that one of them have been killed and replaced by an identical clone. In fact, it’s a biomat (biological automat, I presume) – a very advanced cyborg with programmable molecules. Thus, nobody can find out who is the killer. All they know, is that one of them is a murderer and they are all in danger of being wiped out by Nexus if they can’t find out whodunit.

This film (even though broadcast as a miniseries, it’s structured as a movie) was probably the most exotic and unusual drama produced in Norway in the 70s. It is quite amazing that the only proper space opera film or TV drama of any kind was produced by our state channel in 1978. At that time, science fiction was only beginning to emerge as a popular culture phenomenon in Norway, and NRK was not considered as the place to go for pop culture entertaiment. Norwegians will know that the utterly stale and to most people utterly boring “television theatre” had its golden days back then. Blindpassasjer was created and made in that climate. While we got the direct-to-video privately funded Lies. Inc. in the early OOs, and the Earth-bound sci-fi series Ta Den Ring in the early 80s, Blindpassasjer is still the only hardcore space opera sci-fi production of any kind from Norway’s film or TV establishment, so the DVD is a welcome addition to any movie collection.

Obviously, the plot sounds to a large extent like a murder mystery in outer space, which it is. It is no less than a classic “locked room mystery”, but coupled with a high-tech problem/solution that elevates it from simply being Sherlock Holmes in space. Having a detective poking around with a digital magnifying glass would not make it proper science fiction, but thanks to the cyborg element, there is more depth than just who killed who. In fact, the whodunnit concept is not about who the killer is, but who the victim is. Clever twist. But there is more. Apart from the murder mystery and the surface space opera layer, where the crew investigates a planet (in video flashbacks) and is infected by alien robots, there is also a third level where the story philosophizes around what it means to be human. This is where the academic approach comes into the picture. The question is, where do we draw the line between being programmable machines, and humans of greater value. Sadly, this level is not explored enough. It’s touched upon, but the story focuses too much on getting rid of the biomat. Once that problem is solved, deeper thoughts about humanity are abandoned. Had this movie been made as pure entertainment, the two other layers would have been enough, and you can choose to ignore the philosophy, but since it’s obvious they tried to tell us something, one has to say they failed somewhat.

There is however, a fourth and very unintended angle, which makes the movie enjoyable in spite of everything else. The technology and production design is ridiculously silly, cheap and cardboard-cutout by today’s standards. Painted plywood, kitchen appliances in steel from IKEA and coloured lightning are the bread and butter of futuristic production design here. Very “stage theatre made for TV”. 1978 generic office technology is used alongside futuristic technology (such as the little glass rods used as memory/video units) and 70s video game graphics which makes the film totally unbelievable in terms of appearance. They clearly could not see their limitations, such as having the theater drama department producing hardcore sci-fi on a TV budget. Just about every low-budget science fiction cliché has been included, and the writers/director are not afraid of ripping off 2001: A Space Odyssey either, from which they have taken the aesthetics and philosophy. Of course, considering the circumstances under which the film/series was made, we forgive them.

The movie also have some logical flaws. Some of these are probably money-saving decisions, others are sloppy planning. For example; we’re on board a futuristic spaceship, yet scientific information is not digitized, so when they do research, they pull cheap paperbacks out of the wall. And they do medical laboratory experiments in the spaceship’s control room – the ship has it’s own doctor, a lot of space and many different rooms, yet not a dedicated medical facility? Technology exists to make 100% perfect human clones, but not to get stable, distortion-free communication links to their homebase? And the biggest flaw; the origin of the biomat and it’s reason for doing what it does is not explained with evidence, just circumstantial theories derived from a few low-quality video recordings.

All these cheesy low-budget elements make the film very entertaining. Most of the time, the movie is so bad in technical terms that it becomes funny. I think it’s impossible to appreciate this film if you demand too much from its technology, so if you can look at it from a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 view, you’ll actually enjoy he experience. Obviously, for Norwegian 1978 TV standards this isn’t really rally bad, but still one cannot ignore the differences between this type of production (low budget, TV standards, Ibsen team doing sci-fi) and other genre offerings.

All that said; the movie has a very special, creepy atmosphere. In spite of the cheesy plywood set pieces, the movie sucks you into it’s own small universe, where the pacing and the theatrical acting let you know what things are not right. Little clues to who might be the killer are evenly distributed (including the dog), so it could be any of the crew members. The story is also well laid out (apart from the lack of biomat background), with a slow but good pacing, and ample character depth. I am inclined to forgive the wooden theatrical acting this time, but I am noting that the three women suffer more from woodenactingitis than the three men (a fifth actor appears on a com screen). Bjørn Floberg does a good job as usual, although he always plays everything as if he is a bad guy, here included. But less stale than one might think. Ola Johannesen seems to be Norway’s Tom Selleck, with that moustache, and does not act as comfortable in his role as Floberg does, but still better than the women, whom I think recorded this movie in their Ibsen lunchbreaks. Norwegian actors are infamous for bringing their theatre background to the screen, and you won’t win a cake for guessing that that happens here as well, but at least the male actors relaxes a bit. Plus, I think the wooden acting adds a mystery that propels the story, so for once the infamous Norwegian woodenactingitis does not ruin a movie.

One amazing thing about this film is that the movie came before Alien but has for all practical purposes the same story. One could suspect that Ridley Scott ripped off Blindpassasjer, but the chances of him watching Norwegian TV drama is slim. The story is strikingly similar though.

The music is all electronic, and of the plinky plonky avantguardistic type where the composer got some cool sounds from his synth but did not really know how to use it musically, but it fits the film quite well anyway. The music underlines the creepy atmosphere. It’s fun to observe how electronic scores in old movies now sound oldfashioned, and not futuristic as they thought it would be. I guess that is what you get from Egil Monn-Iversen, Norway’s once premiere film composer but Jean Michel Jarre he ain’t.

It is very possible that Blindpassasjer will only work for Norwegians, for nostalgic, linguistic and other reasons, but if you cannot make the cheesy elements work in your favour, as I do, then at least try to enjoy the rather good story and the characters. The characters are not amazingly well acted, but they offer alot of meat for you to study, or sink your movie analysis teeth into, as it were. Blindpassasjer is not a masterpiece by any means, but interesting both from a story perspective and as cinematic history. It is a rather intelligent and character-driven exercise in the speculations on artificial intelligence, man-made ecological disasters and responsibilities towards use of technology. I wish they would go deeper into this though, because once the murder mystery is solved, the movie finishes, and you feel there philosophical loose ends.

About the DVD itself: There are no extras of any kind. Not even subtitles (not even for the hearing impaired). They could have added some biographies, stills and other material that would not cost them anything to create. I feel a little cheated to pay full price for a DVD5 that doesn’t even offer remastered sound and picture, but the historical aspects of the film probably irons out those issues for most people.

Trivia: A number of radio plays about the same spaceship were also made in the late 70s and 80s.

Rated 5 of 10.

Director: Stein Roger Bull
Norway, 1978

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